Saturday, May 25, 2013
It's been a long wet winter and even a longer wetter spring, but today the sun came out and made Taipei look like a beautiful Mediterranean resort. Sure you can dispute "beautiful", but the Mediterranean part sounds about right. The fact that today is Saturday makes it that much better. So what are Taiwanese doing on such a beautiful day? Going to the beach? No. Going to the park or out of the city? Some. But most are doing something very ordinary: They dry their laundry on their rooftops. After so many months of rain and predominantly gloomy weather Taipeiers can finally wash and dry those huge bed cushions under the scorching sun, that seems to be priority today. Taiwanese are very practical people, that's one of the reasons that you'll see this phenomenon so widespread today. Another one is the fact that most Taipeiers live in relatively small apartments. Hanging clothes, let alone bed sheets, is always a big challenge due to lack of space or air flow.
Some people like me and my wife are lucky. We live in a new condo, and we have a huge communal area on top of the building, that's full with metal pillars and clotheslines where tenants hang their laundry. Here's a view on the neighboring apartment block, where it's less organized, but people find a way to make it work:
Public space is often used as an extension of one's typically small private space. This is very common in suburbs of bigger cities, less so in the commercial centers. Since almost everybody's doing it, it's part of the way of life in Taipei. Alright, I will stop here, I have to go out, I have some clothes to hang.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Let me share you a little anecdote that happened few days ago: My wife and I went back to Taipei after celebrating Mother's day with the in-laws. We took the bus, and like always, we put the baby in the carrier with me being the one carrying her. Unfortunately the bus was extremely full that day. We found seats, but they were separated, and due to the expected traffic jam the ride was longer than usual (can you sense an upcoming disaster?). Somewhere in the middle of the ride our daughter started to stretch her legs, she was kicking like a frog, trying to escape the carrier, showing signs of agony. Perhaps she felt too hot, or the carrier was wrapped around her too tightly, I don't know. But it's not the first time she tried to get out of what she sometimes perceives as a straitjacket. I started stroking her head, talking to her, trying to calm her down, but nothing worked. The teenage boy sitting next to me was observing the happening with great concern, he clearly felt uncomfortable.
And then it happened: A volcano erupted! My baby started to cry so hard, it felt like I was peeling her skin alive! An extremely loud "Waaaah, waaaah, waaaaaaah..." sound echoed throughout the bus, that was silent like a church in Transylvania only a few seconds ago. Heads were turning, people were looking our way with sheer fear in their eyes and confusion, it was like a scene from a movie.
I was very embarrassed and frustrated, because I don't like to bother other people, but I had no remedy to shut her up fast. She was crying for about a minute, but it felt like hours to me. To be honest: After hearing this cry for nearly 90 days in a row I am completely numb to it, because I know that few minutes later she'll smile and behave like it never happened. It's like a coke that was shaken too much, and when you open it, it'll gush out like water from a knocked down fire hydrant. For me it was like people are getting shocked over that. For them it was like someone is torturing a small baby on the bus. I'm pretty sure I would've thought the same a few months ago when I had zero experiences with babies. I used to be the type of person who would whisper to my wife stuff like: "What's going on? Is the baby hurt? What's up with the parents?" Only those who had babies would react with modesty and calm, because that high-pitched cry must sound oh so familiar to most of them.
So what happened further? As she was crying harder and harder I took her out of the carrier and hugged her, but she still wouldn't calm down. Then the bus slowly came to a halt, and a person few seats in front of us was leaving, so my wife and I grabbed the chance and finally sat together. We decided to place her on my wife's lap, and took out the milk bottle (hoping that this will make her stop crying). As we were doing that, the obasan next to us was staring at her like a blind bat. I turned my back on her to block her field of vision, but she still kept staring which made me very uncomfortable. My wife calmed me down by saying: "That's how obasans are, just ignore her". Around 10 minutes later we reached our final destination, and the crybaby fiasco was finally over. Our daughter behaved as if nothing happened, while I started to scheme plans to avoid such incidents in the future. You can't always stay home with a newborn, and you'll never know what will happen when you are out there in public - it's like a ticking time bomb and it's very scary, because it's completely beyond your control. I feel like karma is coming around and slapping me in the face for all those times in the past when I was rolling my eyes during such incidents.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
While doing research for an upcoming post I found an excel file that lists all the data related to foreigners in Taiwan and their employment. If you ever wanted to know what are foreigners actually doing in Taiwan since 1996, this post will be a great resource for you. The file can be found on the website of the Ministry of Interior of the ROC, here is a direct link for you to download and check it out for yourself (you can click on the photo on the left to see how the file looks like). It's a comprehensive database of foreigners in Taiwan sorted by year, occupation and nationality. It's not a perfect resource, but good enough to highlight certain trends and phenomena.
Stereotypes about what foreigners are doing in Taiwan
The main reason that got me interested in this topic is the fact that "What do you do in Taiwan?" is one of the most common questions I get asked by Taiwanese. And not only that, a lot of them assume that I was American and worked here as an English teacher just because I am white. How many times have I heard a kid say something like "英文老師！" ("English teacher!") and pointing at me. It doesn't personally bother me, but it's really common and I wanted to get to know more. It lead me to a question: Do these preconceptions really have a good reason to exist in 2013? Let's analyze some data from the file and try to get a better understanding of foreigners in Taiwan.
My research criteria
I only compared foreign nationals of "15 Years & Over", while those "Under 15 years" were not included, because I assume they can't be legally working. I then took the most common occupations which were: Business, Engineer, Teacher, Missionary, Laborer, Student, and compared their numbers. All the rest was filed under Others, because the numbers were too small, or there was no specific data (my "Others" also includes unemployed and housekeepers). Let me stress that I was constrained by the data, which sometimes seems pretty arbitrary. I have no idea why occupations like Accountant were added for example, because the numbers were very low. Another particularity are nationals of the People's Republic of China (commonly known as China) which are not included in this database, because the government of the Republic of China (commonly known as Taiwan) doesn't consider them "foreign nationals" (read an explanation for this here). So when I use the terms "foreigners" or "foreign residents" in this post I mean them as defined by the laws of the Republic of China. There are also countries that I hoped would be included in the database such as South Africa, Russia, Brazil, and the Latin American allies of the ROC, but unfortunately they weren't. Nevertheless, the resource is still very comprehensive, so I decided to simplify it for my readers and highlight those parts that might be of most interest.
Foreigners in Taiwan by region, 2012
Let's first get a general idea about where most foreigners in Taiwan (that are over 15 years old) come from. This is a chart that divides them into their regions of origin:
It's very obvious that most foreign residents come from Southeast Asia. Together with East Asia (South Korea and Japan) they make up over 95% of all foreign residents in Taiwan. In contrast, foreigners from countries with a majority of white population (North America, Europe, Australia) make less than 4% of all foreigners in Taiwan. The difference is significant.
Foreigners in Taiwan by nationality and occupation, 2012
Now let's see the most crucial data about foreigners in Taiwan, divided by nationality and occupation. I wanted to compare the most recent data, so I took the numbers from 2012 and made this overview and some charts further below.
A different classification
I took the same data as above and sorted it in a different way: By culture/language, East vs. West, and by region. The red font highlights the highest number. Keep in mind that the data under the group "Teacher" can mean any teacher, not only English teacher, despite that being the biggest group of all foreign teachers in Taiwan.
After reviewing the data, here are some conclusions:
- Most foreign businessmen and engineers come from Japan.
- Most foreign teachers and missionaries come from North America.
- Most foreign laborers come from South East Asia, particularly Indonesia.
- Most foreign students come from South East Asia, particularly Malaysia.
- Most North Americans in Taiwan are teachers.
- Most South East Asians in Taiwan are working in factories.
- Continental Europeans and East Asians are commonly businessmen and students.
- Almost half of the Indians in Taiwan are students.
- Contrary to a popular belief, Indians do not dominate the IT sector as engineers.
- There are no laborers from Western countries.
- Most foreign engineers in Taiwan come from Asian countries.
- The biggest group of French in Taiwan are related to business.
- The least number of teachers and missionaries come from Northern Europe.
These are just some of the things I found interesting, but I'm sure there are many other particularities that could be highlighted from this data as well.
How many English teachers are there in Taiwan?
Answering this question based on the data I found is impossible, because "English teachers" are not specifically listed, instead the general term "Teachers" is used, which can mean any kind of teacher. There is other data on foreign English teachers in Taiwan like this one, but I'm not sure how accurate it is, because I can't find the source file. It shows the number as much higher than what I found in my source. Let me stress again: It's not really about the accuracy of every number, it's more about observing trends. Below is an overview of the number of foreign teachers in Taiwan that come from the 4 key Anglophone countries. Data on countries like South Africa, Ireland and New Zealand is not included here, it's filed under "Others" in the charts above, I assume it's because the numbers are too low. Here's the overview:
After reviewing the data, here are some conclusions:
- Most teachers come from USA followed by Canada, UK and Australia
- The peak number of foreign teachers from these countries was reached in 2004
- In 2004 there were more teachers from Canada in Taiwan than there were from the US
- The number of teachers from these countries was in decline between 2004 and 2008
- Since 2009 the number is on the rise again soon to reach the level of 2004
- The majority of people in these countries are white/caucasian
- Roughly 3/4 of all teachers from these countries are male
I could now speculate about the number of foreign English teachers, but I won't do that (also because there are many working here illegally, and I'm not sure how high their number currently is). In Taiwan it's commonly believed that most of them are white males from North America (among other reasons also because the market demands this specific type), and that is also reflected in this data which happens to focus on teachers in general (and I believe English teachers is probably the biggest sub-group of all groups). I think to most foreigners in Taiwan these numbers won't be a surprise, as we can see every day who's doing what here, but I hope that those foreigners who have not yet been in Taiwan and perhaps plan to come, this post will serve as a good reference.
Check also my related posts:
• How to get a job in Taiwan?
• Working in a Taiwanese IT company
• Interracial relationships in Taiwan
Monday, April 15, 2013
Believe it or not, this post has been in drafts for over two weeks, because I couldn't find time to write anything longer than two sentences. Well, actually it was more due to exhaustion. Our daughter is now approaching 2 months, and so far it has been like a weeks long never-ending roller coaster ride, and it doesn't seem to be stopping any time soon. At first it was fun, but now I'd like it to stop already, I'm getting nauseous.
Of learning humility
Taking care of your first newborn baby is so damn hard! This is something I have completely not anticipated before she was born. My biggest concerns during my wife's pregnancy were stuff like transportation to hospital during labor, how to change diapers, how to bathe the baby, how to feed her etc. Those were things of logistical nature, and fairly easy to master, but never in my mind did I imagine the emotional and physical exhaustion that comes along with catering to your newborn's most basic needs. Don't get me wrong, I love my little princess, and recently she smiles a lot, which makes me very happy. But the other near 24 hours are filled with constant feeding, diapering, and trying every way possible to stop her from crying like crazy. The latter has proven to be the toughest task of them all in recent weeks. For some reason she's most active during night (from 2 to 5am), this is a period where we are so exhausted that we can barely keep our eyes open. That's also where she is the fussiest, the hungriest, and the busiest with filling up the diapers. If we somehow manage to make her fall asleep by 5am we're finally able to sleep for 2 hours (I'm not sure I would call that sleep, though). At 7am the whole procedure starts over again. Can you imagine how that feels? If you are a parent you definitely can, if not you probably can't, and I don't blame you. I certainly have not imagined any of this a year ago when we began to talk about having a baby. I was never someone that would tell other parents how they should handle their baby or kid, but I can't deny that I often thought I knew better, and sometimes whispered things to my wife like "Can't they make the baby stop crying?" or "Why do they allow the kid running wild and bothering everybody?" when there was child out of control. After merely a few weeks of being parent I can now understand how hard it is to manage a small baby, and at the same time preserve your sanity. I stopped judging new parents about how they are handling their baby in public. After a number of meltdowns in the first few weeks when she just wouldn't stop crying, kicking, and punching even after several hours of me and my wife's attempts to calm her down, I just couldn't think the same way as I did before. I felt so helpless at that time, and I thought I'm going mental. I definitely paid a high price for learning a lesson in humility.
A different approach
The main problem of being a parent for the first time is you don't have experience, and you are not familiar with your baby (and the baby is also not familiar with you). A newborn forces you to become an expert in nonverbal communication, and you basically have no time for training. You have to learn on the job, you're constantly under pressure, and you will make mistakes (a plenty of them). But it's amazing how the quick learning process can be. Now when I see a certain expression on my daughter's face, I can figure out immediately whether she is hungry, very hungry, in need of a hug, or just finished with small or big business. In return she's also more familiar with me, and with my way of handling her. She probably knows my smell, she recognizes my face, and she is used to the way I hold her and talk to her, because I can make her stop crying much faster by now. I don't always succeed, because she can still be fussy sometimes, but if she's emotionally stable, I can do it fairly easily. And it really feels so great after weeks of helplessness and desperation. With that said I feel she's becoming more demanding as she grows bigger. For Taiwanese standards she's growing extremely fast, she's actually above average in height and weight, and this means: More frequent feeding, more diapering, and more general activity. The biggest mistake we were making in the beginning was trying to make her follow our way. We would put her in bed more often in hope that we can get a break, we would hug her less so that she would get used to sleeping alone in bed, and not on our laps (both our mothers suggested us to do so). It worked well for a day or two, and then it blew up in our faces: She became colic, and for few days all hell broke loose. That's where we had to change our approach and started to hug her more, because she needed it. I decided to give up few nights of sleep for her, and let her doze off on my chest for several hours. Her colic was cured, but I was very tired during that time. Yet it was still better than the constant crying, fussiness, and the frustration over failed attempts to pacify her.
Transformation of a young father
If you're a new father like me you will go through several stages with your baby, and as the time goes by you will become more confident in your role as a father and feel closer to your baby. The most important thing is to not pressure yourself. Throughout most of my wife's pregnancy it was hard for me to really relate to what was going on inside her. As our daughter grew bigger in her womb, and the ultrasound photos sharper, my fatherly instincts became stronger, but still not on the same level as my wife's feelings. This is perfectly normal. When our daughter was finally born, my mind changed completely: I was proud and overwhelmed with happiness, despite being very exhausted from the complicated birth. I was also overly worried about so many things at that time. I won't forget how nervous I was when the nurse showed me how to change diapers, how to feed, and how to burp the baby. We made some videos of my first attempts, and I can only laugh now. I remember when we first brought her home I kept peeking inside the baby bed checking if she's breathing. I was really afraid that she might choke or have some other problem, I was constantly on high alert. Now I try hard not to be to near to the baby bed when she is sleeping, because when she senses me near the bed, she sometimes wakes up and starts crying. I'm now very familiar with her, and because she's healthy and growing well, I'm confident that she will be fine, so I don't check her nervously every few minutes, I'm actually enjoying every minute of her peaceful sleep, because I haven't had any time for myself since new year (the same is true for my wife).
Many people say that the first 3 months are the craziest, because the baby's not able to sleep longer than 3-4 hours (our daughter sleeps 2 hours on average) and needs a lot of care and attention. Once the stomach grows bigger the babies are able to consume more milk, and their sleeping periods become longer. This will be the time where we will be able to establish a sleeping routine at night, and with a little luck my wife and I can finally sleep throughout the night without being waken up by the little lady. What has given us a lot of energy and confidence lately are her beautiful smiles. When she was about a month old she smiled for the first time, but very briefly, maybe just for 3 seconds and only once per day. This has now changed to up to 30 seconds per session, and it can happen a few times a day. You can't imagine how great it feels when you get such positive feedback, because it means that after all the stress and all the energy that went into taking care of her actually had an effect - she appreciates it, she appreciates us. I'm so looking forward to the increased smiling (hopefully accompanied with decreased fussiness), and I'm sure that it can only get better from here on. It was really tough lately, and I couldn't find much time to update here, but I can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. My wife and I are exhausted, but we'll be fine. In any way: Wish us luck!
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
In Taiwan it's customary that when a woman gives birth her relatives, friends, former classmates, and colleagues pay her a visit at home to see the baby (usually during the so called "zuo yuezi period"). It's meant as a gesture of kindness, and it's part of the post-natal experience for most Taiwanese women. Usually these visitors will bring gifts such as toys, baby clothes, diapers, and sometimes things for the mother like nutritional supplements. It depends from person to person what they will give you, but most visitors will feel compelled to give you something. Some of them however choose to give red envelops (紅包, also called hong bao) instead of practical gifts. These contain money, and are meant as a blessing for the baby, given in hope to bring good fortune to the new addition to the family. Red envelops are also customary at other celebrations like Lunar New Year or wedding banquets. This is all nice and fine you might think, but there is a catch. Every gift comes with a debt: You have to reciprocate the kindness as quick as possible by giving a gift in return, it's a sign of appreciation. Just like most of traditions in Taiwan the re-gifting is more or less standardized. Everyone who gave a valuable gift or money in a red envelope is supposed to get a cake (蛋糕) or sesame oil chicken (麻油雞) in return, if the baby is a girl, and oily rice (油飯), if the baby is a boy. Usually the oily rice will come with two eggs and a chicken thigh (guess what is the symbolism behind that? You guessed right).
This is a box of oily rice.
A real-life example
Here's an example to show what this means in reality: If five friends come to visit, and each one of them gives you 600 NTD (around 15 Eur), you have to give a cake (or oily rice) to each one of them of a value of at least 200 NTD (5 Eur), but a more expensive cake is better, if you want to be overly polite. So when you deduct the cost of the cake, you actually get 400 NTD (10 Eur) or less per person, sometimes not even half of the money that you actually received in the hongbao. That is an unwritten rule, I have no idea how that came to be, but that's how it is. In my country this would be quite an unusual way of thinking. When we give gifts we don't expect that people go to such great lengths to show appreciation, a simple thank you is fully sufficient for us in most cases.
Of course these kind of things don't always come without complications. Here's one example from a forum, that highlights how split people are on what is proper etiquette here, and how often one can make an unintentional faux pas:
A woman complained that her colleague, who just became father, had no manners. Her department of 5 people gave him hongbao of 500 NTD each (that makes 2500 NTD all together, which is only about 65 Eur). She says people usually give 300 NTD per person, but because the manager gave 500 NTD, all of them felt compelled to follow (which is quite typical in Taiwan). But what upset her was the fact that the colleague only gave 3 cakes to all of them in return, asking them to share among each other. She felt he had no manners, and believed he wanted to make profit from the money instead of following the proper etiquette where everyone who gave money in the red envelope shall receive their own cake. She said when she had the baby, and people gave her money, she also bought oily rice for everyone.
People who replied on the thread can be put in two groups:
1. The ones who agreed with her, and said he was rude, and should have given everyone a cake.
2. Those who asked, if this is about the blessing of a newborn child or is it about the cake?
The latter is exactly the question I have asked myself when I heard about this custom for the first time. Obviously a lot of young Taiwanese are split on the issue, and it doesn't surprise me. Despite what one might perceive as a very uniformed and homogenous society, Taiwanese are generally divided on many traditions: Some like to tightly hold on to them, while others question them, or adjust them so that they fit into modern times. If you're a foreigner living in Taiwan, it's better to follow customs like this one (even though some Taiwanese might not expect that of you), because it will give you a better understanding of the society you chose to live in, and the connections you make with people might be a valuable asset in the future.
▷ BLOG NAVIGATION: Taiwan>> Uniquely Taiwan!>> Taiwanese childbirth tradition: Cakes and oily rice
Thursday, March 28, 2013
The Chinese expat blogosphere and twittersphere are abuzz over yet another Why I'm leaving China article by a long term and arguably successful white expat. This trend of writing farewell letters started with Mark Kitto in 2012 and has become a thing ever since. CNN Money published his letter which is now being heavily reshared all over the internet. It's about Marc van der Chijs, a Dutch entrepreneur known as the cofounder of Tudou (the Chinese alternative to YouTube). He is leaving China after 13 years mainly because of pollution, and some other reasons - read his article here. Beijing Cream highlighted some of his key points very well, and it's fair to say that most people's reactions to Marc's letter were less than flattering (check Why nobody cares you're leaving China on Storify or browse through Twitter).
Taiwan, the place were no farewell letters get attention
This made wonder why are there no farewell letters of Taiwanese expats published on sites like CNN Money? There were several letters published on personal blogs and Forumosa in the past months, yet no media cared to republish them. Why is that? It's mainly because Taiwan's size, the political status, and the type of expats that live here. The country is constantly struggling to get international media's attention, and it's very likely that no such letter will ever be published outside Taiwan's blogosphere. But since I know that many of you are curious about how such letter might look like, I decided to rewrite CNN's article, and adapt it for Taiwan. This is of course a parody, a spoof (so please don't pretend to be offended and complain in the comments). I don't know anyone who's like the person in my post below, the name is made up, and all the things I say are based on stereotypes (and as we all know stereotypes could not be further from the truth). If you are too sensitive to satire, please stop here, leave this blog, and never come back. This is how a Taiwan expat's letter might look like on CNN Money:
THE RISE OF TAIWAN
Why I'm leaving Taiwan - opinion
By Kevin van der Schijs @CNNMoney March 27, 2013: 11:22 PM ET
When I first came to Taiwan as an expatriate in early 2000 to work for a buxiban in Yonghe, I had no plans to stay.
But I fell in love with this country and a Taiwanese woman, and ended up making Taiwan my home for more than 13 years. Initially I stayed for the hot girls and easy life, as well as the foreigner friendly vibe that runs through cities like New Taipei and Taichung, but when we accidentally got our first baby, I knew there was no escape for many years.
While living in Taiwan I was able to work for several English language schools, I modeled, and I started my own blog called cycling-in-the-chung.blogspot.com. I also invested in many Taiwanese Internet cafés and betel nut shops and helped them to grow.
However, about two years ago I realized that my love for Taiwan was slowly changing, and I first started thinking about moving to a different place.
Over the years, pretending to be a business man had become more and more difficult for a non-Taiwanese. Although many areas have been extremely welcoming to white guys, outsiders are not able to make double the money with half the work of a Taiwanese English teacher anymore.
For example, foreign looking teachers can only make two times more money than local looking ones. Once you have a buxiban up and running, it will be more closely scrutinized by suspicious Taiwanese parents who are on to something. There are still tons of buxiban opportunities available in Taiwan, but I generally felt less leisurely in recent years as a foreign quasi-entrepreneur.
Much more important than this, however, was the fact that air pollution and food quality seemed to be getting worse in my adopted home.
I have a family with two young kids, and found myself wondering about the health effects of long-term exposure to stinky tofu smell. Without children, the smell may not have been as important a factor to me, but I want my kids to grow up in a stinky-tofu free environment. I also missed being able to exercise outside, having been forced to run indoors on a treadmill for several years -- even while training for a 3 months long trip around the island.
Related Story: Shenkeng, Taiwan's stinky tofu capital
I also won't miss Taiwan's sluggish Internet. Because I traveled internationally at least twice a year (mostly visa run to Hong Kong), I was able to see how fast connection speeds were in other countries, and it frustrated me every time I came back to Taichung and had to depend on the incredibly slow 3G connections. The fact that more and more dating sites were only in traditional Chinese didn't make life easier either. When the government also started to sell Taiwan to China from 2008 on (I support DPP), I realized that the situation was not likely to improve anytime soon.
After looking at many places, my family eventually decided that Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan would be our preferred place to live. It's the city that best suits our desire for good weather, an active lifestyle and new business opportunities. I joined CrossPacific Buxiban Association as a partner, and will help North American English teachers to set up or expand their activities in New Taipei. In that way I have the best of both worlds: I live in a great place and can still travel to Taiwan regularly and use my buxiban business knowledge and network.
Looking back, I had a fantastic time in Taiwan and a much better life than I could have imagined when I arrived there as a 23-year-old. I helped build several buxibans, made tons of expat friends and started seeing the world from a different perspective than the one that the Western media had given me. I liked the international atmosphere of Taichung, with its many expat clubs, expat restaurants and fast-paced scooters.
As for Taiwan, I am an optimist and think the current problems will eventually be resolved. If needed, the Taiwanese government can take big steps to combat the stinky tofu smell and related problems, without having to worry about the next elections. These problems are not things that will go away in a year or two, but I think that over the next decade we will see a huge improvement.
Kevin van der Schijs has lived and worked in Taiwan for more than 13 years. He is the writer of cycling-in-the-chung.blogspot.com, owner of many Taiwanese Internet cafés and betel nut shops. He is now a partner at CrossPacific Buxiban Association in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.